“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Thus begins L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between, and both the line and the book are Hartley’s claim to lasting fame in the wider literary world. If you’re an aficionado of a certain type of fiction, however, the author’s most lasting legacy is as one of the greatest ghost story writers of the twentieth century, combining genuine chills with an elegance and skill which calls to mind such writers as James (M.R. or Henry), de la Mare, and Aickman.
Although I began reading ghost stories around the age of nine, it was some years before I encountered Hartley. My introduction to the genre came via a Whitman Classics hardback called More Tales to Tremble By (1968) which, despite the lurid and very creepy cover (which I had to turn face down on the table when I wasn’t reading it), contained a masterful selection of “great stories of haunting and suspense”. It started off in style with H.R. Wakefield’s “The Red Lodge”, and took in such tales as M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes”, Cynthia Asquith’s “God Grante That She Lye Stille”, Perceval Landon’s “Thurnley Abbey”, and Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar” before concluding with Margaret Irwin’s “The Book”.
These stories were a revelation to me, a young girl growing up on the west coast of Canada. My father was a Mountie, my mother a stay-at-home mom, and we lived in a succession of modern houses in resolutely middle-class suburbs of relatively modern (by European standards) cities like Vancouver, Victoria, and Ottawa. Until the age of nine my knowledge of England and English life had mainly been shaped by Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear stories, and the school and adventure tales of Enid Blyton. From these I had learned that all British children went to boarding school, where a highlight of the year was a midnight feast; that all middle-class families had a cook and/or housekeeper; that tea was a much-anticipated meal, not a drink; and that children spent their summer vacation—known as “hols”—tracking down smugglers, petty criminals, and village mischief-makers, all while eating and drinking such wonderfully exotic-sounding things as ginger beer, biscuits, ices, and sweets. (It’s only recently that I’ve realized how much time and description these books devoted to food and drink; I suspect the shadow of war and post-war rationing was still fresh in the authors’ minds.)
I began seeking out more stories in a similar vein, which wasn’t an easy task, given the place (Canada), the time (1970s), and the lack of any sort of guidance when it came to tracking down what might be out there. My solution was to scour whatever library I happened to be living near and look for anthologies that suggested some sort of spooky/ghostly content, and thus I discovered writers such as A.M. Burrage, E.F. Benson, F. Marion Crawford, W.F. Harvey, Bernard Capes, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Edith Wharton. Gradually it dawned on me that—since I was encountering different stories by the same authors from anthology to anthology—there might very well be actual collections of such tales out there.
Again, this was well before the Internet—the late 1970s, to be exact—but help was at hand, in the form of Ellen, who ran the book department of Woodward’s Department Store near where I lived, in the suburbs of Vancouver. I spent many happy hours pottering around the book department, chatting with Ellen, who’d let me sit and browse through the publishers’ catalogues which she kept behind the desk. Imagine my delight when, one day, I spotted in a catalogue a book called The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James. By then I’d come across a handful of James’s stories in various anthologies, and I realized that here was a treasure trove indeed. I promptly asked Ellen to special order a copy for me, and as soon as it arrived I dove into it.
There’s little that can be said about James’s ghost stories that hasn’t already been written. To say that I was overwhelmed by the collection is something of an understatement. Here were some thirty-odd stories which at once concentrated and summed up everything I had come to love about the English ghost story. Elegant prose which only served to heighten the horrors lurking beneath the surface; a series of spooks and spectres that left me looking over my shoulder as I made my way to bed; the occasional flash of a very British sense of humour, to leaven the terrors; and, almost best of all, a wonderful evocation of a certain time and place and way of life which, young as I was, I was beginning to realise was not how most—or even many—English people had actually lived. I’d been an admirer of the Sherlock Holmes stories for several years by that point, and I recognized, in my love for the classic English ghost story, the same feeling evoked by that wonderful, if somewhat idealized (at least in hindsight), Sherlockian world where, as Vincent Starrett memorably put it, “it is always 1895”.
It’s important to understand, however—and it took me a while to do so—that most of the stories which I read as period pieces would not have been considered such by their original authors and audiences. The authors were writing about the world which they saw about them every day, or which they remembered from not so long ago, and readers of the time would have been in the same position. The classic tales I was reading, and enjoying in part because of the agreeably old-fashioned setting, would not have been seen in the same light when they were first published. It’s true that they are more, shall we say, restrained in the telling than many of the supernatural stories told today; but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Writers as diverse as Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, and Agatha Christie have made the point that people are the same the world over; times change, but human nature does not.
Most of all, the ghost story writers whose stories I read and loved realized one thing: no matter when you’re writing, or what period you’re writing about, if you create believable characters in a realistic setting, and then create something really, really scary that they stumble across (or which stumbles across them), readers will be frightened; that “pleasing terror” which M.R. James wrote about, and evoked, in story after story. I’ve read James’s passage about the naked footsteps that showed more bones than flesh to several classes of modern teenagers, and without fail it makes them shiver.
Barbara Roden is a World Fantasy Award-winning editor and publisher, whose first collection of stories, Northwest Passages, was published in 2009 by Prime Books, and nominated for a World Fantasy Award for Best Collection. The title story was inspired by a location only a few miles from where she now lives in Ashcroft, British Columbia, Canada, a small (pop. 1700) town in semi-desert cattle ranching country which is, on any given day in summer, the hottest spot in the country. Hey, at least it’s a dry heat.